By James B. Kelleher and Michelle Nichols
CHICAGO/NEW YORK | Mon Jan 16, 2012 3:24pm EST
(Reuters) – Americans honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday with a traditional day of service as well as a new wave of economic injustice protests by Occupy Wall Street.
On the first King holiday since the now-global Occupy movement launched in New York City in September, the reignited debate over inequality drew hundreds of protestors to march in wintry temperatures in Manhattan, stopping at a Bank of America branch to shout, “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”
At least two protesters were loaded into a police van at the march, held “because Dr. King dedicated the last months of his life to planning a campaign for the right of all to a decent-paying job,” leaders said in a statement.
King was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign, the next phase in the civil rights movement, before he was murdered in 1968.
“I came here on the one hand to honor (King’s) birthday, but also for the things that he stood for,” said Jim Glaser, a retired teacher from suburban Nyack, New York, at the march.
“We have to have a government that’s responsive to people, … a government that people can have some influence on,” he said.
At New York’s African Burial Grounds, schoolchildren played “We Shall Overcome” on violins before protesters marched to the Federal Reserve in downtown Manhattan.
“What Occupy Wall Street is trying to do is exactly what (King) was trying to — focus on economic injustice and to inform and educate the American public,” said Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“I think (King) would be very pleased because Occupy Wall Street is the children of Dr King’s dream,” Siegel said at the 18th century burial ground, part of the National Park Service.
Protesters in the Occupy movement complain that billions of dollars in bailouts were given to banks while many Americans still suffer with joblessness and housing foreclosures. They say minorities were disproportionately affected by predatory lending practices.
The movement has influenced the national political conversation, with President Barack Obama echoing some of its themes in calling for a “fair shot” and “fair share” for all.
Community and civil rights leaders urged Americans to honor King’s crusade for nonviolence and racial brotherhood by doing volunteer work.
The president, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughter Malia marked the day by helping spruce up the library at a school in a predominantly African-American community in northeast Washington.
“At a time when the country has been going through some difficult economic times, for us to be able to come together as a community, people from all different walks of life, and make sure that we’re giving back, that’s ultimately what makes us the strongest, most extraordinary country on earth,” Obama said.
This year’s King holiday came as officials in more than a dozen states implement new laws requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. Critics say the restriction violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — one of the key accomplishments of the movement King led.
Across the nation, formal events such as prayer services, performances and parades were staged for King’s birthday, which became a federal holiday in 1986. Post offices, government buildings and most public schools were closed.
King, a Baptist pastor who advocated for nonviolence, racial brotherhood and equal rights and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, was assassinated in 1968 as he stood outside his motel room in Memphis, where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers.
The convicted assassin, a segregationist and drifter named James Earl Ray, confessed to the killing but later recanted. He died in prison in 1998.